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Peter and Pauline Curtis's 1998 Christmas Newsletter
Illustrated Highlights of 1998
(The Christmas Newsletter)

New Zealand - January to March

We, once again, escaped from the English Winter and spent the first three months of the year in New Zealand where we had an excellent time. We had an initial few lazy days in Auckland over the New Year gathering together our kit before flying to Christchurch for a long period in the South before returning to the North.

This year we spent much more time camping. We had a simple and very economic camper van from Thomlinson Camper Hire (now known as Rental Car Village) which we used as a giant suitcase and used our tent most of the time - it has much better insect protection which is essential to avoid sandflies in the South! The "Thrifty" campervans are mostly Nissan C20 vans converted to have a bed, cupboard/table and cooker bolted in. Although they were far from new they proved very reliable and were actually cheaper than a mainstream hire car. They are also, unlike most hire cars, insured for the New Zealand gravel roads which is essential to reach most of the good scenery and camp sites. We will certainly use them again and full details including pictures of the "Thrifty" are on their web site at http://www.rentalcarvillage.co.nz

The highlights of the holiday, for Peter anyway, were the periods sailing. This time we had a 8 days in the Hauraki Gulf on the Carpenter 29 "Kimberley II" that we chartered last year and a Hunter 336 "Amphion" in the Bay of Islands for a an extra 3 days as part of Pete's 50th Birthday celebration.

Last year Pauline took 22 films in New Zealand and we put the more spectacular pictures into a North Island Picture Gallery and a South Island Picture Gallery after they had been converted to CD ROM. This year Pauline was much more restrained with only 9 films and we plan to update the picture gallery rather than start again!

Back to reality - Late March

Once more greeted by a 3 foot pile of post, frantic calls from OU Students, Tutorials to prepare, the web site to update and the new Toshiba Libretto - our passport to global communications freedom to set up.

Easter - The Lake District

We spent a week with the "College Group" in the Lake District - another excellent time organised by David and Ruth this time in a group of holiday flats. The Easter holidays started many years ago in Youth hostels, then Cottages and has proved a good way to keep together - in fact numbers have grown over the years. As time has passed there has been less walking and more eating - drinking has always featured. We did not know the Lake District well and there is some superb scenery and walking although it is just so crowded compared to New Zealand. We did not do any really long walks but did gain enough height to get some good views. Pauline still had plenty of OU marking to do and it was the first test of the Mobile Life. The Lake District and our flats did not have the best of signals and we ended up trying to collect Email late at night and at 6 in the morning up a steep and icy road with phone and computer balanced on stone wall. One farmer stopped in the morning, wound down his window and asked with a straight face "have you been there all night?"

May - July - Back on the canals

We left home to enter the canals on the first day of our license as the floods abated. The trip up to Oxford took twice as long as usual and was through a mixture of red and yellow boards. We counted the bricks going by under several bridges and spent several minutes flat out in the narrow gut above Abingdon bridge - it must have been running at close to 5 mph. We were very relieved to get off the Thames onto the canals and we think we were only the second narrowboat to make it up as the floods reduced. We stopped at some friends in Banbury and saw their pictures of the Easter period and it was even worse than we had heard - the same when we got to Tewksbury and up the Avon where there were still boats in fields and bits of caravans everywhere.

The trip up the Oxford, Coventry and on to the Trent and Mersey is well known to us and we have a few favorite and regular stops. The first was at Newbold on Avon to play the game of bar skittles which is a game unique to Northamptonshire. It is played by throwing "cheeses" a wood or plastic puck at the 9 skittles which are in a sort of leather armchair - great fun. The next regular stop was to see friends who have Hoo Mill, sadly now only a house, which is on the Trent close to the Canal. John and Babs took over Soaring Oxford - the glider, motor glider and now aircraft business we used to jointly own. After a memorable evening and less memorable awakening Pauline left for a Teaching run home and John took me out to the airfield for a flight in the Grob G115. I ought to have known better than think I was just a passenger - John turned onto the runway, opened the throttle, crossed his arms and said its all yours. I was climbing through 800 feet before I found where the ASI and altimeter were! A very pleasant run round and it all came back quite quickly after many years - even the first landing was tolerable especially so as I have only flown tail-draggers before.

I then continued single handed up to Stoke-on-Trent. On Pauline's return we did the last stretch through the narrow and nearly two mile long Harecastle tunnel up to David Piper's boatyard at Red Bull Basin at Kidsgrove. Corinna was pulled out for us to clean up the bottom (8 hours with a pressure hose) and put on a few coats of Comastic - a fancy sort of bitumen to protect her for another couple of years. The next stage was in our plans was to go to Llangollen before the main season started - it is a popular canal and up to 400 boats a week visit it during the peak season. We were lucky and got one of the dozen moorings in Llangollen at the weekend of the steam train festival. They had 6 engines in steam and due to a shortage of trains were running them two per train. The rain stopped the second day and we had a trip up and back on different trains. Other highlights of the Llangollen were the Pontcysyllte aqueduct where one passes 120 feet over the Dee in a 200 years old 7 foot wide cast-iron trough 1000 foot long supported on impossibly narrow stone pillars. We had wanted to go down the 4 miles so far opened of the Montgomery canal but problems had closed it and we could have waited weeks.

We did not have any fixed plans when we left the Llangollen and rather than come straight back home we turned North for Chester so Pauline could go to Manchester for an OU residential school. I headed on to Ellesmere Port for a couple of days at the boat museum and then back to meet at Chester for a night before Pauline left again for teaching and I continued single handing down the Shropshire Union to meet up again a week latter at Gnossal. We stocked up with Diesel at Turners (13.9p/liter) then down the Bratch (see last years trip for pictures) and on to Kidderminster mooring at Sainsbury's to provision. The next day out with the anchor again and down the Severn from Stourport to Worcester for an evening entertaining David and Ruth. We moored on the canal as it was raining hard most of the day. Then on down the Severn and onto the Avon at Tewksbury where we waited for a friend from New Zealand to join us for a couple of days. We then went on up the Avon stopping at Pershore, where there was Morris dancing in the pub, to Evesham where we spent a couple of days and Peter did the run home to mow the lawn, collect the mail and into London for a Met Club dinner. Everywhere on the Avon there was evidence of the floods - the worst in 50 years. We spent two days in Stratford basin to go to the theater - Merchant of Venice was brilliant and Measure for Measure which neither of us had seen.

Next stop was at Wilmcote where Pauline did a run home and I waited as we had fixed up for a half day course in Falconry. The course was very good and we had and introduction into how to train and handle the birds and then went out with a Harris hawk for a couple of hours. It was then the start of the run home up Lapworth onto The Grand Union, down the Hatton 21 (3.25 hours in the rain) and through Warwick. We were in no hurry so we diverted for a couple of days up to Newbold for another game of Skittles before the final run South down the Oxford and home - 10 weeks, 665 miles and 453 locks during which it rained so much we only had to water the plants on the roof twice.

Jasmine arrives

I ignore an Email with title Thunderbirds are Go thinking it is another joke only to find that Jenny (my niece) is producing. We are already at Litchfield so on spur of moment take up Jenny and Kev's invite to travel North to Leeds and celebrate. They are vegetarian so hasty purchase of Lanson - champaign must be OK. Have to stay overnight.

Late July: Wandering again

We spent three weeks breaking the back of the garden (4 foot deep) and the mail (almost the same) before deciding to go and see the Micron Theater (a canal based group who tour on an old motor called Tysley). They were playing at the Butt Inn at Aldermaston on their way down the K&A. We usually get to see them once or twice a year and have joined their society of friends. It seemed a good idea to take Corinna and entertain Jo and Adrian before the theater so we set of the day before and moored in the basin at Aldermaston which was empty until Tyseley arrived. An excellent evening eating, drinking and watching Imogene's War set in the second world war. They create a tremendous atmosphere with only 4 players and minimal scenery.

We then decided to meander on down the K&A as far as Devizes where it seemed a shame to turn back. The following day it was down Caen Hill - 29 wide locks in 2 miles and on through beautiful countryside and the Seend and Semington locks to the next long lock free pound to Bath. A good decision. We stayed in Bath for a couple of days and entertained friends before turning back to home. We plan to stay off the water until the silly season is over and the schools are back.

Favorite canals: We are often asked which canal is our favorite and where to start if one hires a boat. This trip has reminded us that the Avon from Bristol through to Bath followed by canal up through the Caen Hill flight to Devizes and on over the top to Crofton must be a stretch at the top of any list - the top for peak periods. Perhaps because it is new and [correctly] believed to be hard work it is still very quiet - we have only been seeing 20 moving boats a day in mid August. It has towns, scenery, steam and water wheel driven pumps, aqueducts, tunnels and Caen hill. The Llangollen is another contender with magnificent scenery and the Pontcysyllte aqueduct but must only be visited at times well clear of the summer holiday madness.

August - Steam at Crofton and Kew

We missed a "weekend in steam" at the Crofton pumping engines on the Kennet and Avon canal so we went back by car at the Bank Holiday. We spent a lot of time chatting to the drivers and they invited us to go to Kew where there are a collection of enormous beam engines which used to pump water for London. The largest still running has a bore of 90" and stands 4 stories high - you can climb in through the valves. They have lots of other smaller engines and most of them are in steam at weekends. Annual membership was less than the cost of two visits so we have joined the society and went back for their Festival of Steam. If anybody is interested in these magnificent old engines and the society have a look at the Kew Bridge Engines web site. Many of them ran day in day out for over a hundred years. You understand the meaning of tappets when you watch shafts moving up and down 10 feet with leather covered blocks which tap levers which open and close the valves. Starting them is a real art and can take years of training as all the valves have to hand operated until the engine is up to speed and the condenser is working - too fast and you have several tons of beam hitting the stops.

September - Guernsey

A very pleasant week staying with my sister in Guernsey. Had a very good lunch to celebrate Pauline's birthday on the first full day. We found a new restaurant which has opened in town called Battens in a lovely old building but with very modern yet tasteful decor - good food is probably only half the price you would pay in the UK. Weather was not brilliant but we had a good walk along the cliff paths from Le Gouffre, half way along the South coast, right round to St Peter Port - people were swimming still on some of the sheltered beaches.

October - November: Mediterranean Magic on the QE2

A fortnight cruise down through the Bay of Biscay and on through the Mediterranean to Dubrovnik and Corfu to celebrate our 24th Wedding Anniversary. The return trip took us to Valletta in Malta which was a maiden port for the Queen Elizabeth 2 - the locals lined all the battlements several deep many of them waving Union Jacks as we arrived. No other civil ship evokes the same feelings and there is always a good reception even in familiar ports.

The QE2 continues to live up to all we expect and more - she is a thoroughbred designed for both the Atlantic run and for luxury cruising. The cruising limited her size to fit the Panama canal which she does with two feet to spare (and the dismantling of a part of a building every time she goes through). The Atlantic run heritage means she is the fastest civil ship of any size and far faster than all other cruise ships. She is built to withstand and travel on through weather which sends others fleeing for shelter. We averaged 27 knots on most of the passages including the Bay of Biscay. Her performance in rough weather was brought home as we swept by another ship in the bay which was alternately showing the antifouling and covering the containers on her decks in water.

As I watch the container ship rise and fall as if in another world a group of senior stewards walk by and I overhear one say "I must have another talk to that steward, it is the second day he has laid out one of the milk jugs facing the wrong way". At 2 minutes to four a harp starts to play and a minute later the room is suddenly filled with waiters and waitresses in stiffly starched uniform and white gloves - nobody would dare to be late. They bear enormous plates of sandwiches and cakes with pots of tea and coffee - the tea ceremony has started once more.
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Revised: 14th July, 2020